Workplace Design: A Parallel Universe to Software Development

Larissa Lam

In the past decade, there has been a noticeable change in the way people do business. The concept of experience has been incorporated into many industries. There is user experience in design and products, consumer experience in retail, and guest experience in hospitality. The number one, most fundamental priority for most industries is to strive to appeal and cater to the right audience by capitalizing on experience. The imperative objective is now all about captivating in an emotionally intriguing way that leaves a positive memory for the audience. In an organization, there is workplace experience.

Workplace Experience (WX)

Many workplaces are no longer places where employees clock in and out to complete specific lists of tasks. Many of them have evolved to adjust to the changing needs and expectations of the employees over the generations. The overarching concept of workplace experience (WX) and workplace experience manager has been on the rise over recent years. WX answers the How do you feel at work? question from all perspectives.

WX encompasses all the tangibles and intangibles present within the workplace that play a role in influencing an employee’s workday. From the desks and devices to the ambience and air quality, every moment or interaction throughout the workday has an impact on the employee. When every aspect of the workplace is working well for and with the team, the team is typically more positive and energetic. Ultimately, WX drives engagement, productivity, and culture.

When WX is designed and executed properly, it has the power to change careers and lives. As a result, many organizations are reviewing and revamping their WX as the employees and candidates become more demanding every day. Organizations all over the world are looking for ways to stay competitive and attractive.


In order to curate a positive WX, there must be a real, deep understanding of the people of the workplace. What makes and keeps the team happy? What allows them to feel comfortable, well, and healthy? What facilitates them to be innovative and productive? What are their top priorities in the workplace? WX is all about gathering both quantitative and qualitative data on the people of the workplace and then tailoring workplace layout and initiatives for the people to be at their best physically and emotionally. This, in turn, leads to maximizing productivity, lowering turnovers, and generating better business results.

Elephant in the Room

So what does workplace design have to do with software designers and developers? It sounds like something for interior designers or architects. In reality, both workplace build-out and software development go through very similar design thinking process and have similar intentions of improving experience.

Workplace Design

While WX is an area that many organizations are trying to enhance, many of them overlook the importance of workplace design. Workplace design, along with the work itself, defines WX. While incorporating ergonomic or biophilic elements into the workplace is extremely beneficial, it is the design that dictates the experience and nurtures the culture which is a product of its purpose, people, and place.

Without the appropriate design, it is much more difficult to curate a positive, productive, and inclusive experience for all employees. When WX struggles, the organization’s culture and values struggle as well. How would an office full of cubicles encourage collaborative work? How would an entirely open-plan office welcome heads-down time or private conversations? A great workplace design should be done with the intention to promote employee wellbeing, maximize operational efficiency as well as communicate the organization’s story and values. Software and workplace design are comparable in the sense that both lead to products that solve problems and expedite processes.

Workplace Design Team

Since joining the thoughtbot Boston team as the Office Manager in November, I have picked up a few things here and there about software development. In software development, teams are typically made of product specialists of designers and developers. Designers brainstorm ideas and propose product solutions to clients’ problems while the developers create the software based on designers’ recommendations. Although it would be beneficial to have some understanding, designers do not necessarily need to know everything about how to code or develop. Instead, they must understand what the clients are looking for, what the potential issues would be, and how to best create a bug-free, functional, seamless experience for the users.

This design and developer collaboration team format can also be applied to workplace design. Designers are the workplace design strategists who have the best understanding of office operations and company culture and values. Developers are the interior designers and architects who conceptualize the strategists’ workplace visions and recommendations into something buildable. Workplace design strategists work alongside interior designers and architects to create the WX that solves the workplace problems, whatever they may be: lack of space, rebranding, relocation, etc.

Workplace Design Strategist

Prior to thoughtbot, I was a hospitality consultant. Most of my projects revolved around investment advisory in which we provided recommendations to our clients on how to best invest their money. These recommendations included the hotels’ market positionings, financial projections, and hotel area programs.

In these area programs, we detailed out the hotel facilities: the number of rooms, size of the rooms, suite ratio, number of restaurants, number of seats in each restaurant, types of cuisines, amount of meeting space, and other supplementary facilities. We were, in fact, designing the guest experience that would support the hotel revenues and ROI that we projected. All of the area program recommendations were products of our expertise about the hotel industry and data we collected along the way.

If hospitality consultants can influence the hotel design, what is stopping office managers, facilities managers, or the people team from contributing to workplace design? If the parallel between software development and workplace design makes sense, why does the majority of the workplace design project teams consist mostly of designers and architects? Why is a workplace design strategist not normally part of that project team?

When the workplace design is not done well, the workplace experience will be impacted. Negative WX leads to low productivity, low morale, high turnovers, weak performance, and low profits. There is huge potential in the workplace design space for office and people experts, not just for designers and architects. A workplace blueprint should be a collection of inputs from all stakeholders and relevant experts. Everything starts with the design no matter what the end product may be. The role of workplace design strategist is a necessity in the modern workplace evolution.